Revolutionary Remembrance: William Walsh

Another random selection from the BMH witness statements. A nice short one this time, that is useful in illustrating some of the mundane realities of being in the IRA during the War of Independence. Our winner is Lt William Walsh of Tarbert Volunteers in County Kerry, which I think were part of the 1st Kerry Brigade.

Walsh’s tale is simple and easily told. A farmer, he joined the Volunteers in 1914 at the age of 20, when the local company was first being formed. It was run by ex-soldiers of the British Army, whose first task was to collect money to secure arms, some of which were provided by the Howth gun-running. The company was effectively destroyed by the Volunteer split, and did not even exist at the time of the Easter Rising.

Afterward, things in the area began to get more organised again, starting with a Sinn Fein club being set-up in 1917, followed closely by the Volunteers once again. Walsh claims that there were between 30 and 40 men drilling with the company at the time, a number that enjoyed a short term gain during the conscription crisis, to around 120. Walsh, deadpan, simply notes that “When Conscription was over all of those men left the company and attended no more parades”, a common enough occurrence throughout Volunteer units at the time.

In 1919, Walsh has little to note, save the task of collecting shotguns from the local area and the arrest of their company commander, a man named Tom Fitzgerald. His company needed them, being in the process of gradually giving away all 11 of the rifles they had previously gained from Howth to other units of the IRA that were being more pro-active, most notably to the local flying column, formed in January 1921.

In May 1920, the Tarbet Volunteers determined to affect a somewhat greater level of organisation then they had before, holding a meeting with brigade commanders and electing new officers. Walsh was elected the company’s second lieutenant, essentially its third in command, and the unit was given orders to commence trench digging and tree felling on local roads in order to impede RIC and British military movements.

There was potential for action in the area, as Walsh noted the presence of 13 RIC/”Tans” in Tarbert itself and another 50 stationed just half a mile away on Tarbert Island. But the company merely dug their trenches and felled trees. The inactivity is not expanded upon in any detail by Walsh, save to note that the company was ordered to elect new officers in January 1921 because of it, indicating a certain annoyance from those higher up the chain of command in Kerry with Tarbet’s lack of action. Of the company’s three officers, only Walsh was retained in his position.

As previously noted, the local flying column was also set up around that time, but no one from the Tarbert company was selected to be a part of it. The nominal reason seems to have been that the column was already overly-full and lacking arms to take on anyone from the Tarbert area, but we could easily infer a lack of desire to include anyone from an area where such little activity had taken place already.

The closest the Tarbert Company came to action occurred later that year, in April, when sections of it served as scouts for a column attack on a group of RIC/”Tans” in Tarbert itself. A similar event happened in May and again in July, all small scale attacks which resulted in a few wounded “Tans”. Walsh admits frankly to having no involvement in either operation and maintains that the only thing the company did all the way up to the truce was “to cut and trench roads”. After noting that he undertook some additional training during the truce period, Walsh’s account abruptly cuts off, giving no mention at all to his activities during the Civil War or after.

You’ll find no daring tales of secrecy, ambushes and rebellion here, just a cog in the IRA machine, trapped in an area of little activity, or maybe actively involved in doing not that much. Such was the fate of so many members of the IRA, either “stationed” in areas where there was precious little opportunity to strike a significant blow at the Crown forces, or relegated to menial work such as the aforementioned trench digging, tree felling or support for the ASU’s doing the actual fighting. Their stories, lacking much to interest the reader, find little traction with the modern audience, and who can blame them?

What we have here is an inconsequential part of the IRA war effort, whose accounting for posterity is, by the standards of what else is in the BMH, nowhere near as justified. Walsh had the right to have his memories written down, but I would blame no one for passing his account by. Such is war, where so many soldiers serve their time without much to note. What little comfort I can offer comes from Milton: “They also serve, who only stand and wait.”

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